Study: Adolescents from Unstable Families Lose Ground in Rigorous High Schools

Jan. 27, 2012

AUSTIN, Texas — The type of school a child attends may exacerbate the negative effect that family instability has on academic performance, according to a new study in the January issue of Sociology of Education.

Students who attend more rigorous, academically oriented schools are affected to a greater degree in their course-taking behaviors than students who attend schools with lower levels of "academic press," according to study co-author Shannon Cavanagh, a sociology professor at The University of Texas at Austin.

"We were curious about whether the family instability effect on course-taking behaviors might be different (stronger or weaker) in different kinds of schools," she said.

What Cavanagh and study co-author Paula Fomby, an assistant professor in sociology at the University of Colorado-Denver, found supports what is called the "mismatch hypothesis," which suggests that students who have experienced repeated changes in their family structure status will be less successful academically when attending schools with higher levels of academic press.

Cavanagh and Fomby used data from a national longitudinal study of students who were in high school in the mid-1990s. They chose to focus on math course-taking patterns, because math is one of the strongest predictors of college matriculation. Academic status in mathematics at the end of high school not only represents interest and ability in the subject, but, more generally, it captures a clearer picture of a student's cumulative high school career.

Because the data from the chosen study included information on students' school records and their families as well as characteristics of their schools, Cavanagh and Fomby were able to relate a specific characteristic of each student — their family structure history — with school characteristics.

"This interaction allowed us to determine the context in which a student's own family history had the greatest impact on their course-taking patterns," Cavanagh said.

The findings suggest that children in higher academic press schools tend to do better than those in lower performing schools. Experiences of family instability, however, chip away at this advantage more in high press schools than in low press schools. All else equal, students who attended schools with higher levels of academic press were about 15 percent less likely to complete college-preparatory math when they had experienced three or more changes in family structure, compared with students who had experienced no family structure change prior to entering high school.

"While students in a high-academic press school, regardless of family instability histories, are higher achieving in terms of course-taking compared with their peers overall, students who have experienced repeated family structure changes lose some part of their advantage," Cavanagh said. As such, Cavanagh and Fomby frame their results in terms of "lost gains."

The results of the study could complicate the work of policymakers and educators who have historically sought to mitigate social disadvantages through access to opportunities and resources found in higher-performing schools. Cavanagh suggests the study highlights the need for teachers and school leaders to clarify what she calls the "opaque process of college preparation" and to help parents ask the right questions about their student’s college preparation.

"(School administrations) can remove some of this opacity with broad information campaigns about the expectations that colleges and employers have for student learning," Cavanagh suggested. "Local business and community leaders who join schools in an effort to prepare college-ready high school graduates may also be effective in reaching parents and adolescents."

For more information, contact: Michelle Bryant, College of Liberal Arts, 512 232 4730;  Shannon Cavanagh, Department of Sociology, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-8319.